Teaching Advocacy Through Picture Books

For a recent author visit, I was asked to talk to kids about advocacy, which is funny, because I mostly write silly fiction, as well as non-fiction books about weird science & history. But a quick glance at my library … and I was ready for action. I decided to show the students how to be good advocates using examples from recent picture books. I also explained that advocacy begins with:

  1. A passion for something meaningful and important in your life
  2. The ability to listen before you speak
  3. Making your voice heard (without shouting–unless you’re at a rally, in which case scream your head off), and
  4. Taking action.

Here are a few of my favorite picture books that accomplish these goals by illustrating the lives and actions of remarkable individuals who embody the spirit of advocacy.

One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of Gambia
By Miranda Paul, Illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon
Advocacy lesson: Environmentalism

When Isatou discovers that plastic bags are polluting her village, killing goats, and giving mosquitoes a place to breed in dirty pools of water, she decides to take action. She and her friends cut the bags into strips and roll them into spools of plastic thread. Then they use the recycled thread to weave purses, which they sell. Soon Isatou has earned enough to buy a new goat. The pile of plastic bags grows smaller and the village returns to its original beauty.

The takeaway: Sometimes problems seem insurmountable, but one person’s creativity and actions can make a big difference.

Malala’s Magic Pencil
By Malala Yousafzai, Illustrated by Kerascoet
Advocacy lesson: Girls’ education, literacy

This beautiful picture book makes Malala’s incredible story tangible for children. Written in first person, Malala describes how she wished for a magic pencil to erase the smell of the trash dump near her house and improve her childhood in Pakistan. One day, she sees children collecting metal scraps on the trash heap and she asks her father why the girls aren’t in school. He explains that not everyone educates their daughters and many children need to work to feed their families. More than ever, Malala wants the magic pencil to erase poverty, war, and hunger. When “powerful and dangerous men declared that girls were forbidden from attending school,” Malala becomes an advocate for girls’ education. In a subtle and poetic way, she tells about the terrible shooting that could have killed her: “My voice became so powerful that the dangerous men tried to silence me. But they failed.” She explains how she found the magic she was looking for in her words and her work. In Malala’s words, “One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world.”

​The takeaway: Every child can make a difference in the world! Don’t let others hold you back, no matter what.

The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Right Activist
By Cynthia Levinson, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton
Advocacy lesson: Civil Rights

How best to teach kids about the Civil Rights movement than through the eyes of a brave young girl, Audrey Faye Hendricks, who not only lived through painful segregation laws in Alabama but also joined the Children’s March as the youngest marcher and spent a week in jail to help change the lives of so many? Readers will relate to Audrey Faye’s determination to not only speak up but to act in body and soul.

​The takeaway: Never underestimate the voices and actions of children.

And finally…
I realized that I am an author/advocate too! I showed the students pages from my upcoming book ANIMAL ZOMBIES! AND OTHER BLOODSUCKING BEASTS, CREEPY CREATURES, & REAL-LIFE MONSTERS (NatGeoKids, August 28, 2018). Even books about monsters in nature can inspire advocacy. Each chapter in my book includes a scientist who studies these spooky critters and dedicates his or her life to protect creatures like wolves, bats, sharks, and all kinds of creepy crawlies.

The takeaway: As children’s writers, we have the opportunity, responsibility, and power to encourage activism among children. Ask yourself what’s most important to you (if creepy creatures are your thing, write about them & encourage others to protect them as well!). Tell stories that will heighten awareness about the issues that are close to your heart and use them to raise awareness and inspire kids to take action.

What are your favorite picture books that teach advocacy? How can you apply these lessons to your own writing?

Winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award and a Robert F. Sibert Honor Book

Liberty two boys